FOXBOROUGH - Rookie cornerback Jonathan Wilhite was targeted and beaten, but now he's determined to rise to a new level.
Facing arguably the best competition of his young career in early November, he was zapped by one of the game's best, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Wilhite had lined up in the slot opposite receiver Anthony Gonzalez, and at the snap Gonzalez and Colts receiver Marvin Harrison ran to the same spot, creating a traffic jam.
Wilhite couldn't navigate through the scrum, Gonzalez squirted free, and Manning delivered a 12-yard strike to the corner of the end zone as Wilhite trailed. It was the first touchdown Wilhite had surrendered in the pros, a play he explained happened because he should have been on different levels of the field than fellow rookie corner Terrence Wheatley.
The mistake led to a dip in playing time in ensuing weeks, but now Wilhite's back - and with a promotion.
Instead of serving as the fifth defensive back in sub packages, the fourth-round draft choice has been thrust into the starting lineup in place of the struggling Deltha O'Neal. Wilhite has accounted well for himself the last two weeks against the Seahawks and Raiders, notching his first career interception last Sunday in Oakland.
Yet Wilhite knows there is no time to look back, because what comes next is a whole new level - the NFL's No. 2-ranked passing attack of the Arizona Cardinals, led by quarterback Kurt Warner and receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald, and Steve Breaston.
"It's crazy, going against a great quarterback with all that experience and an offense that has three guys with almost 1,000 yards [receiving]," the 24-year-old Wilhite said yesterday before the Patriots practiced in the rain inside Gillette Stadium. "It's going to be a big challenge for us in the secondary, and as a defense period."
One of the themes coming out of the Patriots' locker room was that it will take all 11 members on defense to slow down the Cardinals (some nasty New England weather might help, too), and given what had unfolded against the Colts it's a nice comeback story that Wilhite will be one of those 11.
"Jonathan has done a good job the last few weeks; he's had an opportunity and he's been able to capitalize on it," said coach Bill Belichick. "The challenge for him is now that teams have seen more of his play, they might start attacking him. Sometimes when you are a young corner, you don't get too much of that until they get enough of you on film."
Attacking is the Cardinals' specialty, as Warner leads the NFL in passing attempts (550), completions (376), and completion percentage (68.4). He's also fired 26 touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Boldin's 89 catches rank fourth in the NFL, and Fitzgerald ranks fifth with 88. Both already have topped the 1,000-yard mark, and are soon likely to be joined by Breaston (909 yards, 71 catches).
Although some are questioning if the NFL has caught up to the high-flying attack, the Cardinals are still averaging 299 yards in the air per game. And given the Patriots' struggles against the pass at times this season - they rank 26th in surrendering 7.6 yards per attempt and are 28th on third down - it remains a key matchup in the game.
At 5 feet 11 inches, 185 pounds, Wilhite knows he loses the tale of the tape to the Cardinals' top three receivers - all of whom are 6 feet or taller - so he's been paying extra attention to his technique this week.
"Being a smaller corner can be a disadvantage at times, but that pushes me harder because I know I have to get in better position on bigger receivers just to win," Wilhite said. "You really have to study bigger receivers, because it's all about a position game with those bigger guys, learning to put yourself in good position."
For a rookie, Wilhite rates highly in that area, which Belichick traces to the coaching he received at Auburn from defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who was a former LSU assistant under one of Belichick's closest friends in coaching, Nick Saban.
"Fundamentally, he was probably ahead of most players that I've coached coming out of college," Belichick said.
Wilhite believes the coaching at Auburn has eased his transition to the Patriots, because "we run a lot of the stuff here that we ran with Muschamp at Auburn; it's the same type of defense." He also credits his teammates for "making sure I know everything, and they talk to me during the game so they make the transition very smoothly."
One of those teammates, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, sees a player who has grown over the course of the season, especially since that game against the Colts when he was targeted by Manning.
"He's coming on," Hobbs said of Wilhite. "It's pretty much the same story that all of us have pretty much traveled coming up to this organization - you're going to get your chance, but when? And when it comes, what are you going to do with it?
"From what I can see right now, he's running with it and enjoying the time he has out there."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.